Is it alright to comment on something one has not seen? It’s a risky choice in this era of fake news, when we are all in danger of forming opinions not only borne of ignorance but from actively being manipulated. When I read that a sequence from a TV serial – described as being horrifying and which had since received a slap on the wrist from a regulatory body – was still available for viewing online, I toyed momentarily with whether I should watch it in the interest of journalistic duty. Then I chose not to. Surely, when it comes to depictions of gratuitous violence or injustice, the answer to that question can sometimes be Yes.
Instead, I read news about that scene, from the TV serial Kalyana Veedu. The violence described was both physical and verbal: a gangrape, ratified by dialogue that’s clearly an anti-woman fantasy. In it, a woman plots against another woman, hires a group of men to enact her instructions, and is then punished by them in exactly the same way. A further revenge sequence, involving fire and male genitalia, is something Freud (or better yet, Camille Paglia) would probably have analysed as the projection of male envy. A TV serial has more than one mind behind it. Just the thought of the kind of discussions that happened behind-the-scenes is hair-raising. I’ve been in enough work meetings with men who hallucinate that they are creative and cutting-edge to know that there was almost definitely someone there who imagined that castration by fire is what feminists want.
The Broadcasting Content Complaint Council, responding to viewers’ dismay about these sequences, fined the TV channel what seems to be a token sum, but more meaningfully has ordered a week-long apology to be played before every episode of the same serial.
To take umbrage against such content is straightforward. This is a good thing, to have internalised healthy protest so deeply, but the hope is that by now our sociocultural politics have evolved so that calling out such objectionable material isn’t enough. The Me Too movement worldwide, and the revelations it has provided into the way workplaces have functioned for so long, has made it crucial for us to no longer stop at disgust and anger but to delve into how such contraventions of integrity happen, and how they can be prevented.
The TV channel that aired this vicious sequence claims that the TV serial has family-oriented values. Perhaps our next line of enquiry should begin there. Among the public who made the complaints, was it only the visual violence that was the problem or the logic behind it as well? In other words – were they upset because rape is perceived to be a violation of chastity (a completely oppressive concept) and a taboo topic, or because rape is wrong, full stop? There are some interesting dinner table conversations ahead, if we choose to take this incident as not just a teachable, but an eminently learnable-from, moment. Those who wrote those scenes, produced them and were perplexed by the reaction to them didn’t conjure those ideas out of nowhere. Like I said – they’re not really that creative…
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.